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40 killed as Syrian rebels target Alawite village

The report on the attack on the village of Maan in the central Hama province came as the Syrian Red Crescent (SRC) was trying to get a ceasefire in the besieged city of Homs extended so it could deliver more aid and evacuate more people from the area.

600 people left the besieged ruins of rebel-held central Homs on February 9, 2014, escaping more than a year of hunger and deprivation caused by one of the most protracted blockades of Syria's devastating conflict. Yazan Homsy /Reuters
600 people left the besieged ruins of rebel-held central Homs on February 9, 2014, escaping more than a year of hunger and deprivation caused by one of the most protracted blockades of Syria's devastating conflict. Yazan Homsy /Reuters

BEIRUT // At least 40 people were killed by Islamist rebels who overran a village in central Syria populated by the Alawite minority, activists said yesterday.

The report on the attack on the village of Maan in the central Hama province came as the Syrian Red Crescent (SRC) was trying to get a ceasefire in the besieged city of Homs extended so it could deliver more aid and evacuate more people from the area.

Half of the victims in the attack, which occurred on Sunday, were civilians, including women, while the other half were village fighters defending their homes, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Syrian state media described the attack as a “massacre” perpetrated by terrorists, a term the government uses for rebels fighting to topple president Bashar Al Assad.

Islamist militants, including foreign fighters and Syrian rebels who have taken up hardline Al Qaeda-style ideologies, have played an increasingly prominent role among the rebel fighters fighting forces loyal to Mr Al Assad, who is a member of the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

The raid on Maan is likely to bolster efforts by the government delegation to convey their narrative at the Geneva peace talks that the three-year uprising to overthrow Mr Al Assad is dominated by Al Qaeda extremists. The extremists see Alawites as apostates who should be killed.

Rami Abdurrahman, who runs the observatory, said Islamic fighters overran Maan after Alawite villagers lobbed mortar shells on the rebels using nearby roads. There have also been heavy clashes for weeks between hardline rebels and Mr Al Assad loyalists in the nearby community of Morek, Mr Abdurrahman said.

A video uploaded by the rebels of the Jund Al Aqsa Brigade, which said it overran the village, showed them waving a black flag over the village rooftops as bearded, grinning men looted homes.

Jund Al Aqsa Brigade, however, did not claim the killings and no other extremist group in Syria did.

Khaled Erksoussi, the SRC’s head of operations, said around 300 more people were evacuated on Monday from besieged rebel-held neighborhoods of Syria’s third-largest city, Homs. He also said the group was notified that a cease-fire in Homs that ended Sunday has been extended “far a few days.”

The day’s evacuations brought to around 1,000 the number of people brought out of Homs since Friday, when the truce began. The Red Crescent has also delivered some food aid into the districts, despite shelling, though none was taken in on Monday, Mr Erksoussi said.

Government forces have been besieging the rebel-held districts in the city for months, cutting off supplies. The truce to let in aid and let out women, children and elderly was brokered by the UN.

“We managed to get some food and aid in during this pause, but not the quantity we had hoped for,” Mr Erksoussi said over the phone from Damascus.

Homs was one of the first areas to rise up against Mr Al Assad in 2011 and has been particularly hard hit by the war.

Over the past year, the government regained control over most of the city, except for neighbourhoods in the historic centre. Forces loyal to Mr Al Assad have blockaded those parts for over a year, causing widespread hunger and suffering.

Last week’s ceasefire was arranged by the UN mediator, Lakhdar Brahimi, who during the Geneva talks last month urged Syria’s warring sides to help about 2,500 civilians trapped in the ancient, rebel-held quarters known as Old Homs.

Syria’s uprising began with largely peaceful protests against Assad’s government in March 2011 but later descended into an armed uprising and a full-blown civil war with sectarian overtones. More than 130,000 people have been killed, activists say.

* Associated Press